The St. Joseph River Valley Fly Fishers, a local chapter of the Federation of Fly Fishers: Great Lakes Council, is an organization with a mission which includes the promotion of conservation, restoration and access to fish habitat.
Since around 1980 this chapter has taken an activist role in small stream restoration on the Dowagiac Creek resulting in a self sustaining brown trout fishery. The stream, which is the eastern branch of the Dowagiac River has long been known as prime brown trout water.
The SJRVFF was brought into restoration projects by local landowners and have had the cooperation and support of the Michigan DNR. Fishing Rod builder and James Heddon & Sons employee, Bernard Hills of Dowagiac, a resident on the creek, functioned for many years as a "de facto" riverkeeper before the fly fishers were started. He worked with other local property owners to allow access to the creek and served as a liaison with the fishing community. He and DNR fisheries biologist Jim Dexter first got the club involved.
Joe Mitchell, co-founder of the club, points out that the relationship with the DNR is mutually beneficial. "Michigan has funds to help share the cost of projects. Our club gets projects done and then gets partly paid back when funding becomes available. It's a win win situation for the DNR." Either the club initiates projects or the DNR tips them to a specific need.
Improving trout habitat on the Creek is centered on installation of "lunker structures." These white oak structures measure about ten inches deep, three feet wide, and eight feet long. They are submerged at significant locations into a bank and then covered with rock and soil. They create man-made undercut banks to provide crucial resting areas for trout. They also help prevent bank erosion and contribute to the stream's sinuosity.
"We place lunkers in slow-moving water on bends so that the water will keep the underwater area flushed clean," says Mitchell. He relates that the east side of the creek at Russ Forest County Park is an easily accessible area were lunker structures have been installed. They are so incorporated into the environment that visitors standing on the broad bend in the creek would hardly realize lunkers were present.
SJRVFF members regularly walk the creek to open obstructions such as fallen trees. "We don't remove them" say Mitchell. "We just cut an opening and let the current make its own way hrough, digging holes for fish habitat." They also suspend half logs to provide cover and wire baskets to filter out sediment.
The summer of 1999 saw a continued effort by the SJRVFF and their volunteers including DNR and MEANDRS members.
Source: South Bend Tribune, July 2, 1995, and interviews with Joe Mitchell; photos courtesy of Joe Mitchell and Allen Butchbaker.
For more information on SJRVFF visit Joe Mitchell's website listed on our Links page.